We’ve all heard how our modern day selves are too wired, tired and stressed. We run on adrenaline and are constantly in fight or flight mode… but do we actually know what this means or entails? I’m going to give you a really basic rundown on how our central nervous system operates, and then suggest some techniques that will help get us get into a more natural, cool, calm and collected way of living.
So, just imagine our nervous system has two main branches that we live under the control of. One switches on when we are feeling calm and safe (parasympathetic), and the other switches on when we feel stressed and under threat (sympathetic). To avoid any confusion let’s just call them our calm mode and our stress mode.
When all is well in our lives for the most part we operate under the calm mode. Under this we breathe steadily, our heart beats regularly and restores itself easily after exertion, blood flows fluidly in and around every tissue, we digest food easily, our muscles contract and relax in harmony, our biochemistry is balanced and measured, we sleep restfully and we generally feel pretty happy and content.
When we sense danger or an emergency we employ the stress mode. This asks our adrenal and pituitary glands to secrete chemicals (mainly adrenalin & cortisol) around the body to give us an extra boost to help us in our emergency. These secretions deepen and accelerate our breathing to keep us focussed and alert, increase our heart rate and blood pressure and shut down our digestive system so more blood can be urgently sent to the more needy skeletal muscles in case we need to act quickly. It also breaks down liver cells and other protein rich tissues to make glucose so the muscles have enough fuel, thickens the blood, causes water retention in the kidneys, and causes our brain to experience heightened learning, sensory selection and a sense of time lapse – Phew!!!
Once we are out of danger we have a chemical surplus in our blood that can bring on feelings of queasiness, abnormal excitedness, and shaking. When the adrenaline has been released and re-absorbed we can safely go back to the calm mode.
Not surprisingly, we can sustain a longer and more healthful life under the calm, parasympathetic mode. Stress mode is intense and designed to be used only in times of dire need. Unfortunately our 21st century brains are still equipped with our cavemen stress response systems, so we struggle to distinguish between the stress of having a fight with a colleague and being pursued by a lion. We can slip into this mode when we are late for work, working to a deadline, or even worrying about loved ones. Obviously in a life or death lion situation this mode is very helpful and potentially life-saving, but our bodies simply cannot sustain the demand – adrenal fatigue will set in weakening the immune system, depleting energy, causing mood swings, anxiety, sugar cravings, hormonal disruptions and so on. Pretty easy to see where this notion of mind-body-spirit comes from now, huh?
So as you can see, everything that happens in your mind has a physical representation in your brain and in your body. Being aware of your thoughts and emotions and making a conscious effort to bring your body back to homeostasis is most important. Here are my 4 tops ways to help spend more time in parasympathetic.
Dedicate time to play, move around and have fun! It is impossible to achieve balance in your life if you don’t do things that make you feel good. At some point you will fall off the wagon if you don’t practise fun. You may fall ill, lose relationships or simply feel flat or sad. Following what feels good will help you get closer to your true nature and therefore what best serves you. Decisions should be made on what feels good rather than driven by fear of what you think you should be doing or what others expect of you.
Every day do something that gets you moving and makes you smile. Go for walk outdoors / get some sun if poss! / paint / play tennis / play with your kids / pet your cat / dance / play a musical instrument… for 10 minutes (at the very least!)
This doesn’t mean you have to sit crossed legged and chant. Just dedicate some time every day to sit, be still and experience inner silence. This practise is a powerful way to reverse toxic thoughts/emotions/habits and to return your body back to homeostasis and self-repair.
Sit in a comfortable position and bring awareness to your breath; your heartbeat; your emotion; your chest, arms, spine, legs, feet… Just observe, don’t manipulate or judge, just notice. It is completely natural to get distracted with thoughts or sounds around you, just allow them to pass and bring your attention back to your body.
WHEN: At least once a day
FOR HOW LONG: 5 – 30 minutes
Practise conscious belly breathing. Shallow breathing can be enough to take you into stress mode. When you shallow breathe your body senses stress and starts that whole chemical reaction described earlier. By simply breathing low into your lungs and filling the belly with air, you send calm waves through your body. Belly breathing also helps massage your internal organs and aids digestion.
Lying on your back is best, but definitely do a few rounds of this while sitting at work or on your travels. Breathe in through the nose allowing the belly to rise, breathe out through the mouth allowing the belly to soften back towards the spine. On the inhale visualise gently blowing yourself up like a balloon – can you breathe into the front of your hips? On the exhale feel all of your tissues melting back in towards your centre. Bones feel heavy and relaxed.
WHEN: At least once a day
FOR HOW LONG: Try this for at least a couple of minutes. Keep it gentle, don’t ever force the breath. If you are particularly stressed or know you are a shallow breather then take it slowly – taking in more air can make you feel dizzy if you’re not used to it!
It’s simple – eat fresh, real whole foods. A wide variety of fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fats, eggs, fish and meat. Drinking fresh vege juices will help you get a massive nutrient hit and drinking stock will help heal and calm your nervous system. Eating processed packaged dead food with high sugar and salt content stresses and messes with the system. Avoid at all costs.
- Eating and chewing slowly. Breathe. Notice what you’re eating…textures, smells, tastes. Do not inhale your food while sitting in front of your computer, in the car, or on the bus! Not good.
- If you crave sweets you need to fill up on more nutrient dense foods with high natural fat content. Try swapping sugar for for raw honey and always eat fruit with nuts, seeds or some form of natural fat – fat helps slow down the rate at which the sugar hits your bloodstream. Coconut oil is fabulous remember!
- If you need a pick me up try swapping sweet milky coffee for black tea or herbal teas
(IMG: David Straight)